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Namibie : The Impatience of Workers Has Increased

D 28 mai 2012     H 05:10     A National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW)     C 0 messages

On the eve of the commemoration of Workers Day, on May 01, New Era’s Margreth Nunuhe spoke at length with National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) Secretary- General Evalistus Kaaronda on the state of Namibian workers, 22 years after independence.

Would you say Namibian workers are better off thanthey were before independence ?

"General ly speaking, workers are better off than they were before independence. Before independence there was no labour act. The labour law environment was stratified - it was segregated for the lack of a better word, whites there and blacks here. There was no coherent one national piece of legislation that put everyone on equal footing as far as labour rights are concerned. But soon after independence our government established a labour legislation, Labour Act No. 6 of 1992. In that sense workers were given rights, our country became a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and many of the ILO conventions stand ratified by our government, whose co-conventions bring forth the protection of workers’ fundamental rights, and also bring forward the role of trade unions in the overall development of the economy and the upliftment of social and economic standards of citizens. So, to that extent the workers ought to be better off. But also Chapter 11 of our Constitution deals specifically with issues of a social nature, which among other things promotes the establishment of independent trade organizations.

This is all aimed at giving workers a strong base on which to make socio-economic demands aimed at uplifting their standards of living and mending their role in society through organised and democratic trade union organisations. "The other part suggests that workers are not necessarily better off. In terms of labour relations at the workplace, not much of the work situation has changed. From a situation where you had black employees and white employers, this largely remains the same. Even though government is the biggest employer, the private sector is no different from what it used to be before the country was independent. You would go to a commercial farm and find black employees still being treated the same way they were treated before independence.

They are still subjected to the same conditions, a lot of things are yet to change at the workplace. Women are still looked at as your inferior employees who don’t deserve to be paid better and who cannot occupy positions of power, so there is some degree of male chauvinism in the labour force, on that score a lot needs to be changed. When you look at workers, you must look at them holistically, be they black or white. I remember a few years ago government struggled to ratify Convention 100 of the ILO that talked about "equal pay for work of equal value". Now Convention 100 took very long to ratify because government knew that salaries of employees were not equal. White employees were not paid equal to black employees doing the same work, women doing the same work were not paid equal salaries to black male or white male employees doing the same work and that again speaks to the kind of situation we have.

Convention 100 was ratified a year or two ago and that tells you that in terms employment relations a lot has changed but a lot still needs to change. Yes, it’s true that unions have gone out to employers to strike what is known as recognition agreements, as exclusive bargaining units to act on behalf of their members at various place of work. It’s a plus to have bargaining unions at various places of work in that the interests of those workers are now articulated properly through their workers’ unions and that these employees can collectively raise their concerns and grievances through their unions to have those concerns and grievances addressed without them as individuals being victimised by employers. Because now they have a union that can speak for them. The fear of being alone and harassed is curtailed by the unions."

What do you think of the working conditions of workers now ?

"You would know that we don’t have a national institute that exercises some degree of supervisory role on working conditions, wages, occupational health and standards, but we have a safety department in the Ministry of Health. Our unions also have safety departments. There has been a concern to see how employees have diedat mining companies, how the situation at the Tsumeb Custom Smelter has been making headlines in terms of health.

The same is true about health concerns at Namdeb, which was one key reason why workers went on strike for one month, but we have laws, systems in place that protect the rights of workers. On wages, we recently saw a report by LaRRI which also suggests that many unions have not negotiated wages on par with market realities. Most unions therefore did not conduct research before negotiations with employers and struck deals with employers not in the best interest of their members. That calls for training of trade union cadres to know what to do before they engage negotiations with employers to appreciate economic indicators, for instance such as the consumer price index.

These are things you need to know, like your level of inflation. In terms of training, we have also incapacitated our union leaders, negotiators and so on to appreciate these things and use them as tools in their negotiations. Wages have been very low. As a consequence of that our members have not been able to propel themselves out of poverty through improved wages. The situation has largely remained the same and the value of the dollar that the worker takes home is far less than what he used to take before independence. It’s a reality, it’s an economic fact. But of course the desire on our part is that when you strike wage deals, you do it in such a way of effecting real economic change and empowerment in the lives of workers."

What do you think has led to the increase in industrial strikes these couple of years ?

EK : As union leaders we are very proud that we have been able to raise the necessary awareness among workers about their role and rights which have also helped them to identify areas that they feel are not good. For instance, the Rössing Uranium strike, where workers explicitly complained about an unjust payment system of bonuses where management would take in excess of N$500 000 and give workers in excess of N$10 000. So, in comparative terms, workers have realized that they are actually the ones responsible for production and they cannot be paid bonuses that are close to nothing when they created conditions that made companies as profitable as they are today.

And that to me is a key point in that workers awareness has started rising and as a result they are more demanding of their rights than they were before. The situation at Namdeb is that the workers felt the employment situation is not safe and that they cannot go on and work when they know they will lose their lives. And this what we also want to bring to our colleagues at Otjihase mine where when you feel that the employment environment is not safe, that you must immediately stop working. You must consider your health, safety and life first before anything else.

That is what the law also prescribes. So, again on low wages, workers have also begun to realise that the basket of commodities is no longer the same price that it has been over the years. One needs to have more money to buy the same commodities in the same basket than you would have required a few years ago. The number of mouths that members have to feed continues to increase. With the rise in unemployment, all those who are not employed go somewhere to eat and they go somewhere to sleep, to bathe and they are sustained by the few who have a job. The pressure on those with disposable income has tremendously increased and that has also led to the increase in the impatience of our members or workers and as such when wage negotiations commence, you can see the impatience of our people. Even employers do not agree, and it invariably leads to industrial action. "Because of the impatience at times, most workers engage themselves in wild-cat strikes.

It becomes no more an economical issue but an emotional issue. This is what we have been trying to manage and you are right when you say there has been quite a number of strikes and those strikes really speak to issues that I have raised earlier on. "The economic environment has not been very friendly, it has been very hostile and will continue to grow hostile unless unions grow the necessary strength to put up resistance."

There has been a lot of infighting between union members, or one union against the other or members of the NUNW federation. Why is that ?

"Infighting, if it is directed towards policy issues, bread and butter issues, to me is healthy. Our organizations are not homogenous, they are very dynamic, and this at times presents conflicting situations within organisations. But it is also those conflicts that permit internal growth of the organisations. But where there are differences of a personal nature, then those differences become harmful to the organisation. Then persons find it difficult

Source from http://www.newera.com.na/